An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg

The famed whistleblower explains why we're closer than ever to doomsday.

An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg

Edward Snowden calls him the father of American whistleblowing. Henry Kissinger once labeled him the most dangerous man in America.

Patriot or traitor? Depends on whom you ask, but there’s no denying the impact Daniel Ellsberg has had on American history. His leak of what became known as “the Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the Vietnam War written for the American government revealing the nation’s duplicity in the Asian military action, helped turn the tide of public opinion against the disastrous conflict.

Ellsberg is back with another warning — this time about the terrors of nuclear war. His new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is a terrified insider’s account of how close we’ve come to Armageddon in the past — and why we’re now at the greatest risk since the height of the Cold War.

I’d like to kick off the discussion with a quote from a recent article in Foreign Affairs: "Like President Donald Trump, the Pentagon's new nuclear policy document sees a dark and threatening world. It argues that potential U.S. adversaries such as China, North Korea and Russia are rapidly improving their nuclear capabilities and gaining an edge over the United States. But rather than laying out a plan to halt this slide into a more dangerous world and working to decrease reliance on nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Posture Review…hastens its rise by accepting the reasoning of U.S. adversaries and affirmatively embracing nuclear competition." So, it seems like your book's extremely timely.

Unfortunately, yes. That, of course, corresponds at the same time with President Trump's exchange of epithets and priming for war with North Korea, which would be the first two-sided nuclear war the world has ever seen. It wouldn't be the event that would cause near extinction…but it would mean more violence than the world has ever seen in the period of a day or a week. I think it would confirm this race toward more nuclear weapons in the false belief that those would increase the nations' security, whereas, in fact, they would reduce world security in general, including the nation that did it. This seems an extremely bad direction to be going, and my book is a warning.     

Even the title, The Doomsday Machine, perhaps it's slightly tongue-in-cheek, or maybe not, but that comes out of “Doctor Strangelove,” where there is a so-called “doomsday machine,” a Russian device that will destroy the world if we fire a nuclear missile at them. Maybe not so farfetched?

No, the title’s not tongue-in-cheek at all. As I say in the book, what I concluded in 1964 when I was working in the Pentagon and went there with my boss to see a viewing of “Doctor Strangelove,” we both concluded that it was a documentary at that time. Of course, it's a satire, it's a comedy, a black comedy, dark comedy, but everything in it could have happened then. I think that's been true ever since, including what we didn't realize then, in '64, was that our existing apparatus of nuclear war would have caused near extinction — not literal human extinction of every last human on earth, but, perhaps, 98 or 99 percent of humans with some surviving on fish and mollusks near the Antarctic or in New Zealand, possibly.

We didn't know then about nuclear winter, the phenomenon that the smoke generated and lofted into the atmosphere by the cities we were burning, we ourselves, without the necessity even of Soviet retaliation, that that smoke would encircle the globe and would cut off 70 percent of sunlight, killing harvests worldwide and leading to worldwide starvation. Whereas Herman Kahn, my colleague at Rand, when he invented the concept of a doomsday machine, he said at the time that there was no doomsday machine and never would be, that no nation would ever choose to make that.

Well, without knowing it, we had made a doomsday machine. Nobody knew that for another 20 years, but we have known it now for about 35 years, since 1983, and our planning has not reflected that at all. The weapons that both Russia and the U.S. are planning to buy now are directed, in theory, toward reducing damage to ourselves in a nuclear war by hitting and counterforce attacks, hitting the ICBMs, basically, and the command and control of the opponent. Actually, that would have no effect. The cities that would burn from the submarine-launched missiles and the ICBMs that weren't hit would wipe out the attacker as well as the attacked and everybody else inside of a year. It wouldn't be immediate, but by nuclear famine.

The Doomsday Clock recently moved to two seconds before midnight, saying we're at the most dangerous threat for some sort of nuclear conflict since 1953.

Right, well, that's the efforts of the Federation of American Scientists to alert people, to warn them, to wake them up. I don't know how much effect it has, but we're all doing what we can. In my case, they were moving the clock forward for these same reasons I've been talking about, and, in addition, the backwards movement we're making on climate, attenuating the putting of carbon dioxide by the burning of fossil fuels into the atmosphere, which will, on a somewhat slower time scale than a nuclear war would do, also threaten civilization. For both reasons, they said we're closer to doomsday than we used to be. Well, we'll see whether they have an effect in alerting people.

Steven Spielberg has a new movie (“The Post”) about the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers after the New York Times had been temporarily blocked.

It's a good movie. It's very timely and very well done, well-acted, and directed. It certainly brings up two themes here, very much the freedom of the press and necessity for the press to confront and to challenge efforts to stop it, which are very much happening under Trump, of course, and I think will get worse than we've seen. Already, under President Obama, there were three times as many prosecutions of leakers for leaking classified information as all previous presidents. President Obama, who I voted for, increased that, and I think that Trump, before he's through, even if he's in only [one] term, will probably surpass that. So, it's a very timely film in showing how important it is to resist that effort by the Executive [Branch] to silence the press.

Finally, I have to ask you about whistleblower Chelsea Manning. She’s running for the senate here in Maryland.

Yes, well, I could say that I would rather go to prison than run for senate, but, then, I didn't have to go to prison in the end, so I can't speak from experience as she does. I take it she thinks that's better than being in prison.

Michael Causey is co-host of the Monday-morning program “Get Up!” on WOWD 94.3 FM Takoma Park.

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